Journalists at Turan News Agency in Azerbaijan while tax police raided their office earlier this month. 

© Azadliq Radiosu (RFE/RL)

Just last month, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev gave more than 200 apartments away free to journalists and accepted a “friend of journalists” award in return. He claimed that thousands of press agencies operate in Azerbaijan.

But in fact, Azerbaijan has a long record of state antagonism toward independent and opposition media. The most recent victim is the country’s last remaining independent news agency – Turan. It’s now under investigation and could face closure.  

On August 7, Azerbaijani authorities launched a tax-evasion investigation against Turan, alleging it owes more than US$ 21,000 in taxes for the 2014-2016 period. Turan’s director, Mehman Aliyev (no relation to Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev), denies the allegations, and considers the investigation politically motivated. Nevertheless, the agency vowed to cooperate fully with the investigation and was preparing documents requested by tax authorities to meet the August 17 deadline. But on August 16, the tax police raided Turan’s office, searched the premises and computers of its journalists, and confiscated all financial documents and the accountant’s computer.

Using bogus tax-related charges to jail critical journalists is nothing new for Azerbaijan. Just last month, authorities sentenced Faig Amirli, financial director of the already closed pro-opposition Azadlig newspaper, to three years and three months in prison. Aziz Orujov, head of the recently -closed Kanal 13 online TV, has been awaiting trial on tax-related charges since June. A number of non-governmental groups also had to close following spurious tax audits and criminal investigations.

Mehman Aliyev told local media he fears the same fate awaits his popular agency, which has been operating in Azerbaijan since 1990, cooperating with leading international agencies, and providing independent news and analysis in three languages.

The investigation is the latest in a vicious crackdown on critical media in the country. Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 162 among 180 countries for press freedom. At least eight journalists and bloggers are currently in prison on politically-motivated charges. Among them is Mehman Huseynov, one of the country’s most popular journalists and bloggers, who’s serving two years in prison on bogus defamation charges.

Azerbaijani authorities permanently blocked the websites of some major media outlets critical of the government, and in March 2017 amended laws to tighten control over online media.

Gifting flats to the journalists has nothing to do with respecting Azerbaijan’s international obligations on media freedom; Not unjustly jailing journalists and making sure that Turan news agency can operate without undue government interference, has.